Google’s search engine is blocked in China. But inside the Beijing offices of smartwatch maker Mobvoi Inc., the internet giant looms large.
Mobvoi relies on Google’s software to power its line of watches and smart speakers. Its engineers build apps using TensorFlow, Google’s free set of development tools for artificial intelligence. Mobvoi’s sales team targets users outside of mainland China by buying Google ads. “It’s not just software, it’s an ecosystem,” Zhifei Li, Mobvoi’s chief executive, said of Google — also a minority investor in his startup.
Li is one of many allies Google has courted in recent years as it tries to keep a foothold in China, a market from which the Alphabet Inc. GOOGL, -0.95% GOOG, -0.92% unit retreated eight years ago in protest over government hacking and censorship. While its core services like search, Gmail and YouTube remain blocked for most Chinese citizens, the company provides tools and support to a growing number of app developers, manufacturers and advertisers in the region, who rely on Google to reach global customers.
Now those allies will likely be crucial as Google embarks on a broader China expansion strategy, according to a number of people either involved in the effort or watching it closely. As part of a project dubbed “Dragonfly,” Google is testing a mobile version of its search engine that would adhere to China’s strict censors, people familiar with the matter said. To convince the Chinese government to allow such a move, Google can point to its local partners as examples of how the company contributes to economic growth. That is in contrast to rival Facebook Inc. FB, -1.55% , which also covets the China market but has had less success establishing a beachhead.
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